Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Silent Thunder Caper

Mark Hodder The Silent Thunder Caper (2014)
Just to get it out of the way, I had some initial doubts about this one. Aside from my being pretty much a stranger to detective fiction in general, the somewhat cartoony cover just didn't inspire confidence, which I realise is probably a facile observation but it would be stupid to deny that cover art has no influence on my initial impression of a novel. Happily, holding a physical copy in my hand dispels all doubts, it being a pleasantly chunky doorstop of a hardback, beautifully put together and reminding me of the Dean & Son hardback children's editions of Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and other classics my grandfather used to buy for me as a child in a sadly premature effort to introduce me to culture; and the cover works very nicely out here in the physical universe, and in a way which it doesn't on a screen for some peculiar reason.

As for detective fiction and the possibility of me being out of my depth, I dipped a toe into an anthology of Sexton Blake material some months back, most of which I enjoyed, so this isn't entirely unfamiliar territory, and not least because it's written by Mark Hodder - he who once so cruelly poured admittedly eloquent and descriptive scorn upon my overachieving sphincter back during our college days, despite my defence of it having been a bad pint, or something.

Anyway, down to business: Sexton Blake as some readers may already know is the star of a long running detective serial of over a hundred's years vintage, now under the wing of Obverse Books. Roughly speaking, he's the Sherlock Holmes who isn't afraid of a punch-up, but the more you read, the more he begins to feel very much his own distinct character. Mark Hodder, having been a fan of Blake for a long time and curator of Blakiana, the dedicated website, was a great choice as author to the first of what will hopefully be a long-running series. Even aside from the sort of attention to detail he brings to the regular cast of Blake, Tinker, Mrs. Bardell and others, his Burton & Swinburne novels have already shown him to be a thorough and expressive hand when it comes to period pieces of this kind. The Silent Thunder Caper strikes a fine balance, perfectly evoking the atmosphere of a time in which even the humble telephone was relatively new-fangled, achieving nostalgic effect without parody, and somehow avoiding any suggestion of affectation - the sort of thing you get when a nineteen-year old reads himself some Lovecraft and decides to have a go. Most surprising of all - at least to me - is how happily The Silent Thunder Caper sits in two places at once, constituting both solid Blake and a great Mark Hodder novel with the sort of political convolutions, elaborate plotting, and earthy humour which have served the Burton & Swinburne books so well. As ever, Hodder delivers an accomplished and thoroughly classy narrative, and anyone who has ever enjoyed his superior pedigree steampunk will find a lot to love here.

If not for the sake of comparison but nevertheless serving as such, this hardback also reproduces G.H. Teed's The Wireless-Telephone Clue from an issue of Union Jack first printed in 1922, an earlier Blake story serving as introduction for some of the characters of The Silent Thunder Caper. Teed seems to have been generally acknowledged as one of the best Sexton Blake authors, and his tale sits quite comfortable alongside Mark Hodder's continuation as both complement and contrast with a narrative which could probably have been condensed to a couple of pages in terms of incident, yet remains engrossing for a hundred or more.

I'm pleased and genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Sirens of Titan

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The Sirens of Titan (1959)
This being my third Vonnegut, I've begun to notice certain themes and to recognise that the thoroughly wonderful Slaughterhouse Five was but one single work of a generally impressive set rather than the anomalous flash of brilliance I had assumed it to be. As with the first two that I read, Vonnegut spins a story so implausible that it can only be taken as allegorical, nailing that weird-looking thing to some sort of narrative backbone of such warmth, confidence, and wit that you don't really notice how stupid it is. Here, amongst other junk devices, we have a Martian invasion by the Army of Mars, somehow comprising expatriate Earth people with a dynamic that's more Beetle Bailey than Heinlein; and there's the millionaire who finances his own space mission, the stranded alien from Tralfamadore, the astronaut and his faithful pet, Kazan, the dog of space who, having travelled through a chrono-synclastic infundibulum find themselves beamed back and forth between Earth and Titan; and we learn that the entirety of human history has been manipulated from distant Tralfamadore so as to produce the spare part needed to repair the ship of Salo, the stranded traveller.

Suddenly I realise where Douglas Adams got it all from, most of Hitchhiker's Guide amounting to The Sirens of Titan read aloud by Eric Idle playing a perpetually embarrassed vicar; but happily the Vonnegut version doesn't spend its page count digging you in the ribs and smirking to itself, despite being considerably funnier and actually having something coherent to say.

The Sirens of Titan is about freewill, relativism, and the selfsame freewill looking one hell of a lot like predestination depending on where you're standing. There's the question of whether millionaire Malachi Constant has any choice in growing up to be an arsehole, given his upbringing, and whether he is capable of redemption once he loses all of his memories - clues to how much wiggle room he really enjoys given his phenomenal success on the stock market being based on a seemingly arbitrary pick of Biblical passages. Then we discover that the chrono-synclastic infundibulum is a phenomenon by which different, incompatible views of the universe are united; and finally there's the punchline of what human history looks like to a stranded machine from Tralfamadore, one to whom Stonehenge seen from above is actually a form of text reading replacement part being rushed with all possible speed.

Where I found Cat's Cradle to be a little messy, The Sirens of Titan is smooth, all parts well-oiled and sliding together with absolute harmony - as is probably essential given the John Heartfield collage of its constituent elements. This is probably the best book I've read this year.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Special Deliverance

Clifford D. Simak Special Deliverance (1982)
Here's another late period Simak, and one that feels somewhat like a more ponderous rewrite of Devil Doll, even allowing for the man's tendency to recycle certain themes. It kicks off well with our boy accessing an alternate reality by means of a one-armed bandit, reminding me a little of the alternate Earth to which we travel by means of a child's spinning top in Ring Around The Sun. Duly deposited in bewildering surroundings, we meet another typically Simakian mismatched band of motley characters of patently allegorical disposition, notably the cynical, argumentative Parson, the domineering Brigadier, and of course, the shy, retiring robot as the innocent of the group. Whilst the quest upon which they embark kicks up a number of engaging discussions on religion, history, morality and so on, and as such feels more overtly Swiftian than is generally true of Simak's oeuvre, the problem is that we're never quite clear as to just what it is they're seeking, at least not until the end; or at least the reasons given are not well defined, and so Special Deliverance lacks at least some of the drive, not to mention the novelty of Destiny Doll. On the other hand, the conclusion is reasonably satisfying, elevating this one above the likelihood of it being something he wrote just for the sake of keeping his hand in. It's tough work finding anything to dislike about a Simak novel, generally speaking - unless you're just some miserable fucker who doesn't like anything - and there is little to dislike about this one, although it's probably not amongst his best.

I expect I've said something like this before, but noticing the alternate Earth once again accessed by juvenile means, the returning significance of William Shakespeare, the motley band on a quest, the religious man, and the robot as innocent - there is enough here to justify the existence of the term Simakian, and surely enough to justify a more in-depth summary of the man's work than exists at present. Please don't make me have to be the one who writes it. I'd only fuck it up.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Galaxy Four

William Emms Galaxy Four (1985)
Having discovered that roughly two years worth of grumbling indigestion has turned out to be a condition know as diverticulitis, I find myself bedridden, limited to a clear liquid diet of chicken broth, apple juice, and not much else, and smashed out of my box on such dosages of codeine as to render me ill-equipped to cope with Simon Bucher-Jones' translation and reconstruction of Thomas de Castigne's The King in Yellow. I have an Enid Blyton book on my to-be-read heap, which is about the right level but I'm just not in the mood for it. Then I recalled someone - quite possibly Nick Campbell - mentioning this on facebook, and the pleasant memories were accordingly stirred.

Galaxy Four for those lucky souls who didn't already have a ton of this crap rattling around inside their heads, was a four-part Doctor Who serial starring William Hartnell, one that has particular resonance for me, quite aside from the fact that I was born on the day before they broadcast the second episode. I was ten in 1976 when I discovered the existence of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society; and immediately joined up, receiving membership in return for my postal order along with the July issue of TARDIS, a fanzine which seemed to have been run off on a duplicator and as such belonged to an age when it actually required elbow grease to produce a fanzine. The thing which really struck me about TARDIS issue eight, aside from it signifying the existence of others who shared my interest, and others of such obsessive devotion as to yield essays about Sontaran biology, were the poor quality stills from Galaxy Four reproduced on the back cover, images of Chumblies and Drahvins which made me appreciate how the 1973 Doctor Who Radio Times Special - which I had come to regard as being at least as important as the Bible - revealed but a tiny portion of a much larger picture. So in my thoughts Galaxy Four became foremost representative of the mysterious black and white prehistory of Doctor Who, that which I had been too young to watch as it was broadcast. Years later someone lent me a privately made video reconstruction of Galaxy Four - still photographs accompanying the soundtrack because the BBC had set fire to the original tapes - and whilst it was ponderously slow and low on incident, it didn't disappoint me in any respect, which I suppose means I'm hardcore by some definition.

Anyway, if anything has been written on the literary influences of Doctor Who - and I'm sure it must have been somewhere - then I've not seen it, and I suspect that during those formative years, back when the show was watchable, there may have been at least some influence from the supposed pulp science-fiction writers of the forties and fifties - at least providing we acknowledge there having been an age when television referenced sources other than itself. Galaxy Four utilises what has become a fairly standard trope inverting the traditional association of beauty with virtue - the repulsive aliens are benign whilst the conventionally beautiful Drahvins are complete cunts. With this in mind I find myself thinking of Murray Leinster, but truthfully you would probably have a tough time finding a science-fiction writer who hadn't used this particular twist at one point or another; and if you squint, the Rill could almost be distant cousins to the multiple limbed reptiles of A.E. van Vogt's The War Against the Rull. Additionally, Galaxy Four makes use of the ruthless, militaristic culture based on logical principles, of which there seems to have been some fear during the fifties and sixties, I suppose either in the wake of the second world war or in response to Stalin's version of Communism. Here we have the lettuce-scoffing matriarchal Drahvins, although I assume their gender is no more significant here than their vegetarianism, it being a last minute change made to Emms' original script, presumably made in the name of giving either dad or Aunt Susan something to look at.

By the way, if anyone has any particular interest in this line of enquiry, you really need to take a look at Simak's Time and Again and They Walked Like Men in which the development of the Jon Pertwee version of the character and those first two Auton stories are foreshadowed to the point of absurdity.

Anyway, William Emms' novel seems to have been based partially on his own script, partially on how his script was developed for television, and to a lesser extent the broader mythology of the show which came a little later. It's a children's book, just as it's a children's show, frequently reclassified as being intended for all ages so that a few kidults don't have to feel self-conscious. This isn't necessarily to denigrate anything or anyone, but sometimes a children's programme is simply a children's programme, and it can seem almost insulting to have to elevate it - to Uncle Tom it - as is so often done with Doctor Who, logically implying that anything aimed exclusively at children must be necessarily dumb and poorly conceived. Although I can't recall whether such references occurred in the televised version, the Galaxy Four novel mentions both Plato and Bertrand Russell in passing, with some level of discussion; and not because this is Spiderman quoting Schopenhauer as he beats up the Green Goblin, but through its being produced during an age when it was assumed that children could cope with intelligent dialogue, and that they were learning at least something at school, and it was okay to expect people to keep up rather than talk down to them or sweeten the pill with sentiment or novelty beyond the story already involving aliens and an extrasolar planet. Galaxy Four may be slow and obvious by contemporary television standards, but there's no pandering, plenty of charm, and even wit:

'There's nothing to do now but wait.'

'I wish there were,' Steven said. 'This sort of situation makes me restless.'

'Stand still and think of your mother,' Vicki suggested.

Steven gave her a withering smile. 'What a great idea. Did anyone ever tell you you have a marvellous sense of humour?'

'Several people,' she answered brightly.

'They lied.'

I'm loathe to invoke the contemporary reverse-bowdlerisation of this show, but compare the above with today's wearisome jokes about blow jobs and girl-on-girl action.

Doctor Who has never been as good - or as always brilliant if you really must - as its most violently stupid advocates claim, not even with its own history as the only context within which such claims are usually made, but it once did absolutely everything claimed for it on the tin, and it had a hell of a lot of charm. Not only has Galaxy Four been a pleasant reminder of this fact, but it got me through a pretty rough day,  although the pair of dinner ladies painted on the cover bring me no closer to discovering the mystery of the appeal of Andrew Skilleter.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Infernal Devices

K.W. Jeter Infernal Devices (1979)
I sometimes prepare myself for a book by taking a look at its online reviews, a habit which isn't always as useful as it might be, given that the worst aspect of any cultural trend will almost always be its stupid fucking fans; and so it transpires that the details we need to recall here are that K.W. Jeter invented steampunk, and Infernal Devices is the very first steampunk novel because it's written by the man who invented it, and steampunk is Victorian science-fiction and H.G. Wells is the most famous steampunk man, and Infernal Devices isn't very good because it isn't proper steampunk and doesn't have a description of a polished brass computer every five fucking pages.

Whilst Jeter certainly coined the term steampunk, I suppose Infernal Devices as where it all started makes sense if one indubitably finds one's probiscis applied as though with some fixative to the surface of that most delightfully steampunky diversion, the screen of the zoetrope upon which one may view really brilliant shows about steampunk on the Discovery Channel, or perhaps even Mr, Zuckerberg's most marvellous internet, as opposed to, you know - reading a sodding book. Even without invoking the mighty pen of Moorcock, there was even a fucking steampunk comic strip published prior to this, namely Bryan Talbot's eminently readable Luther Arkwright, but never mind because oooh look, a steampunk Dalek, cogs, brass and pistons, handlebar moustachioed computers named Montague tee hee...

Anyway, I've always sort of wondered about Jeter, what with him being so much a buddy of Philip K. Dick as to end up as one of the characters in VALIS; whilst at the same time being put off by the knowledge of his having written sequels to Blade Runner, presumably meaning the shit film rather than the superior novel from which it was crudely rendered.

I can see why Infernal Devices wasn't such a hit with at least the more picky representatives of the aviator goggle wearing tosspot community, being as it doesn't do much in the way of ticking those steampunk boxes which have apparently since become a requirement. This, I would suggest, is in its favour, at least placing it alongside the works of Michael Moorcock and Mark Hodder in being a period piece written by someone who was actually trying to write a novel, if you'll excuse my possibly acerbic tone. In sharp focus, the composition of said novel is lovingly upholstered, rich in texture, and tending to the sort of digressions one might expect from the literature of the era to which it eludes, and as an American author writing about Victorian England, Jeter has done exceptionally well to capture a certain mood and to avoid incongruous Transatlantic slips of any sort.

On the other hand Infernal Devices sits at the halfway point between a sort of Platonic ideal of H.G. Wells, and Lovecraft's Shadow over Innsmouth with all its fishy halfbreeds, and as such it romps along nicely at the pace of something read on the beach, and accordingly works better if you don't make too close an inspection. The narrative seems a little incoherent, with one scrape resolved and replaced by another seemingly for the sake of keeping it moving whilst we await the conclusion. Certain elements don't quite go anywhere, and others seem a little flimsy, notably the time travellers who aren't really time travellers so much as individuals who have found a means by which to study the future, and who have studied the future to such an extent that they now sound like extras from a Guy Richie film; and while I suppose the idea works up to a point, what this place needs is a goddamn enchilada stand and similar exclamations just seem to suggest that not much real thought has gone into these particular characters or their story. At certain intervals the narrative feels improvised, but, as I say, he sort of gets away with it by telling the story by means which give you a reason to keep on reading.

Unlike the novels of Moorcock or Mark Hodder, this really is just a romp with no justification for its setting beyond why the hell not? This edition features one of those afterwords explaining how much you enjoyed the classic you've just read, mumbling some incoherent crap about audience hankering for that which is obviously constructed by human hand, as opposed to the dehumanising curved forms of current technology; which isn't really the same as Infernal Devices actually being about anything. Still - pretty good nevertheless, and I've definitely read worse.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Liberating Earth

Kate Orman (editor) Liberating Earth (2015)
Here's another one for which I painted the cover, thus once again potentially presenting a question of how impartial my review is likely to be, the answer to which is - I would hope - business as usual. The only difference would be that if I hated it, I wouldn't bother posting the review online because it's uncomfortable when someone you vaguely know produces tripe, and we all have to sit around saying well done, old bean, and nobody quite knows where to look.

Thankfully Liberating Earth is a long, long way from being tripe, as roughly anticipated on the grounds of having been edited by Kate Orman who can generally be relied upon to pull a half-decent story together with the words in the right places and everything. A few emails ago as we were discussing what was to be on the cover, I  recall references to the more metaphysical designs which so often graced the jackets of science-fiction anthologies of the fifties and sixties - the Yves Tanguy with space rockets school of illustration, roughly speaking. Such is the tendency I was hoping to channel here - and pedants with too much time on their hands may like to play spot the difference with a copy of the Consul edition of The Outer Reaches collection as edited by August Derleth - and now, having read the thing, I see the sense in this.

Liberating Earth is a collection of short stories with alternate and often genuinely weird versions of terrestrial reality as the unifying theme, all chained together as part of a larger narrative by Playing for Time, Kate Orman's own sequential contribution; so you could probably read it as either a novel or individual stories depending on your preference. I actually found it a little difficult to follow the precise details of the larger story, Playing for Time, as a consequence of it being divided into nine parts, which wasn't a problem. It seems to hold together in so much as it feels like it all adds up and is nevertheless enjoyable. Playing for Time is also more or less the token Faction Paradox element of the recipe, with the remainder relating to the mythology by slim terms, or at least at a bit of an angle and often in spirit rather than furnishings. Hopefully this shouldn't be a problem for anyone requiring a certain quota of grandfathercidal teenagers in skull masks; and it certainly wasn't for me because - to swing back around to the point begun in the previous paragraph - the collection as a whole goes a long way towards invoking the spirit of some of the great science-fiction anthologies of the fifties and sixties, less in terms of any nostalgic tendency as the sheer range of mood and theme, and the thrill of having no idea of what you're going to get. Everyone will doubtless have their favourites, and there were a couple I personally found a little chewy - which is probably more to do with my own preferences than the quality of the stories. Those which stood out as possibly exceptional for me were E.H. Timms' Dreamer in the Dark, Red Rover Red Rover by someone identifying herself only as Q, and Kelly Hale's wonderful Project Thunderbird, another presentation of evidence in the mystery of why publishers aren't simply throwing massive wads of cash at her. Similarly noteworthy is Annie's Arms by Xanna Chown presenting a sort of surreal, suburban horror which put me in mind of the stark contrasts of the first Siouxsie & the Banshees album - all very John Heartfield. Also we have the highly entertaining The Vikingr Mystique by Dorothy Ail, a sort of Thelma & Louise with space Vikings. The last thing I read involving space Vikings was a short story called Indifference by Brian Aldiss, which intrigues me slightly given that Ail's Nordic seeker of pillage is named Aldis with one s. For what it's worth, The Vikingr Mystique pisses all over the Aldiss story, in the event of there being any conscious homage involved.

Finally and possibly my favourite is Rachel Redhead's Judy's War, partially because it demonstrates the great range of the collection, and partially because it's a genuine pleasure to see her work in fancy-pants print at last. I read her self-published The Raithaduine Saga and concluded that once you're past the occasionally loose sense of grammar and the fact of it being so bloody long, it has a lot in its favour. Redhead's prose disregards established science-fiction or literary conventions, weaving a bewildering path strewn with weapons-grade jokes, huge, crazy ideas, and sudden narrative swerves which seem entirely her own. At times it reads like A.E. van Vogt channelling Vicky Pollard or maybe some of the earlier, slightly more warped John Waters movies - which I suggest as a recommendation in case that isn't obvious: she probably isn't likely to get commissioned to write anything so respectable as the next Young Bond novel, but she writes with the kind of mad genius which can't be faked, and which by definition needs to cut its own path. I hope she realises that her writing has a lot more going for it than many of the things from which I gather she has drawn influence, and I hope this is the first of many such appearances in print.

Liberating Earth is great. Now can we have a full-length Kate Orman novel, pleeeaaase.

...and in case you were wondering...

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Ultimates

Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch & Andrew Currie
The Ultimates volume one (2002)

I'm confused. For some reason I was under an impression of this having been the gritty version of Marvel's Avengers which inspired The Authority by Warren Ellis and prompted Alan Moore to apologise for that whole violent, unhappy superheroes with herpes and criminal convictions trope resulting from the entire comics industry having missed the point of Watchmen; but the dates all seem to be in the wrong order, so I have no idea which came first, who inspired what, or whose fault it is.

Well anyway, if nothing else, it's fairly clear that The Ultimates was a significant influence on Marvel's big screen version of the Avengers, a film I very much enjoyed as it happens, although  enjoyed without necessarily wanting to rush out and see it again. The Ultimates, I guess taking cues from The Authority, re-imagined Marvel's Avengers from the ground up, and being sprung forth from the biro of Mark Millar, it's well told, brilliantly observed, and undeniably cinematic - partially helped by great art, of course. The marginally more fanciful elements of the mythology are revised to aid suspension of disbelief, so the Hulk no longer results from Banner's exposure to transforming radiation, and we learn that basic biology prevents Giant Man from growing taller than sixty feet, this being the limit beyond which his bones would no longer be able to support his body. I'm sure Richard Dawkins would still find something to moan about, but you have to make a few allowances, otherwise you're just left with a story about a guy called Marty who sells shrimp from the back of his van.

As a comic book, it's impressive and kind of fascinating, but is let down by the fact of most of its characters being horrible tossers, presumably for the sake of Alan Moore patented gritty realism, without much in the way of wit to redeem them - which is why the film worked better, I thought. Additionally, the scene in which Hank Pym beats up his wife, and the rampaging Hulk's apparent intention to rape some former girlfriend cast an extraordinarily unpleasant tone over the whole endeavour, and enough so as to ensure that I probably won't be bothering to pick up further volumes. I've defended Mark Millar's gratuitous use of shock on previous occasions because for the most part I tend to think he gets it just right and has thus generally been able to justify a few readers throwing up over their comic collections, but this is horribly misjudged, and is probably exactly what his critics have been talking about all along.

Despite everything this book has going for it - yuck!